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OPINION

Proxy battles on the Massachusetts ballot

Much of the energy — and the money — that might otherwise have gone to candidates is gravitating to statewide referendums instead.

Two issues in particular have ignited Republican ire: Question 1 (the “millionaire’s tax”), which would apply a small surcharge to incomes over $1 million, and Question 4, allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses in the state.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The Massachusetts Republican Party heads into next month’s statewide election with what Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell might call a “candidate quality” problem. The state’s GOP contenders are, with the rarest exceptions, mega-MAGA Trumpists or members of the party’s conspiracy caucus, antiabortion, progun — in other words, not the kind of Republicans Massachusetts voters have ever shown a willingness to elect. There’s also a candidate quantity problem: Barely a third of the state’s 200 legislative seats are contested this year, and the field is even thinner for the county offices. No Republican even bothered to run for the office of state treasurer.

What the state Republican Party does have in November are the ballot questions. Much of the energy — and the money — that might otherwise have gone to candidates is gravitating to statewide referendums instead. Two issues in particular have ignited Republican ire: Question 1 (the “millionaires tax”), which would apply a small surcharge to incomes over $1 million, and Question 4, allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses in the state. A “Yes” vote would confirm these progressive initiatives; a “No” vote would deny them. Party leaders hope that galvanizing voters against these questions could boost turnout for their struggling candidates. The strategy is on brand, since the Vote No campaigns employ two of the GOP’s proven motivators: xenophobia and greed.

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The synergies between the Vote No campaigns and the state GOP are undeniable. The opposition to the millionaires tax is being funded by a local who’s-who of prominent donors to Republican causes, familiar names like Jim Davis, the CEO of New Balance; developer John Fish; and Robert Kraft, each of whom gave — irony alert — $1 million to the Vote No campaign. (The three also have donated to Democratic candidates in the past.)

More explicit are the ties between the state GOP and the committee against Question 4, which dubs itself “Fair and Secure Massachusetts.” Party chairman Jim Lyons repeatedly touted the petition drive needed to get the driver’s license law repealed as “our” effort; gubernatorial candidate Geoff Diehl said his campaign “dropped everything” in order to help gather the needed signatures. A top donor to the Vote No campaign is auto parts magnate Rick Green of Pepperell, a former Republican candidate for Congress, who has employed Diehl at his company. The party’s attorney general hopeful, Jim McMahon, speaks for the Vote No campaign in debates.

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On his podcast, Lyons said he is “looking forward to getting our people energized,” through the Vote No effort, though he also said he was appealing across the board for voters to end “the left’s radical agenda.” The campaign darkly predicts everything from long lines at the Registry of Motor Vehicles to voter fraud if the law is allowed to take effect. Never mind that 17 states and the District of Columbia already grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants or that the Massachusetts Major Cities Chiefs of Police Association and a majority of the state’s sheriffs support the law, since training and registering undocumented immigrants and requiring them to get insurance actually enhances public safety. For the state’s Republican leaders, stirring up ugly passions on immigration is just a way to turn out the vote.

The millionaires tax campaign, meanwhile, has a higher profile and more money, on both sides of the question. The Vote No campaign has spent a good chunk of its cash on ads aimed at ordinary voters who think they might realize a one-time windfall from the sale of their homes in a hot real estate market. But fewer than 2 percent of home sales in Massachusetts last year were over $1 million, and they tended to be in the ritzier zip codes such as Nantucket and Weston. There’s already a $500,000 capital gains deduction for couples who sell a primary residence, which means the surcharge wouldn’t apply to any gain under $1.5 million — a vanishingly small number of sales.

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Of course, the Democratic Party also has been known to use ballot questions to spur turnout in statewide elections. In 2014 and 2018, especially, the party helped place broadly popular initiatives to raise the minimum wage on ballots from Arkansas to Maine. But this year, in this state, it’s the Republicans, hampered by an uninspiring slate of candidates, who hope to ride the coattails of the ballot questions to victory. Whether it’s enough to tip any of them into office in November is another question entirely.


Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.